Eastern Oregon likely to get fraction of money requested from state for drinking water emergency

Eastern Oregon is likely to get one-quarter of the money it wanted from the state this year in emergency aid for clean drinking water. 

In an Aug. 11 email, Morrow County Commissioner Jim Doherty asked state Rep. Greg Smith, a Republican who represents the area, to submit a letter requesting for $4 million to the Legislature’s Emergency Board, which meets next week to grant funding for projects statewide.

Doherty said the money is needed to test thousands of wells in Morrow and Umatilla Counties for nitrates and to provide special filters to households with unsafe drinking water. 

The county has tested 500 wells this year, and nearly half have come back with unsafe levels of nitrates.

Morrow County has largely confronted the drinking water pollution issue, but Umatilla County groundwater is also contaminated with harmful nitrates and testing is beginning to get underway.

Doherty said Morrow County has spent nearly $500,000 on the problem already. 

“That is primarily in outreach materials, staff, time, water deliveries and filter installation. In all of the aforementioned, we have barely begun,” Doherty’s email to Smith read.

There are an estimated 4,500 domestic wells in Morrow and Umatilla counties supplying water to 12,000 people in Morrow and Umatilla counties. It is not yet known how many might be contaminated.

Requests for emergency money must go through state agencies, and the money must be approved by the governor’s office before the Emergency Board considers it. Doherty suggested Smith submit the request through the Oregon Health Authority or the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. 

But on Aug. 25, the health authority and Gov. Kate Brown requested the board allocate $882,000 to help Morrow County through June 2023, when the current budget cycle ends. 

The agency came up with that figure without final input from Doherty or others helping with testing and outreach. The letter asking for $4 million never reached the health authority, the Department of Environmental Quality or the governor’s office, agency officials said. Smith said he talked with the governor’s regional solutions representative for East Oregon, Courtney Crowell, and was told that the governor would only be considering a request for $882,000. Because of this, Smith said, he did not send the request elsewhere. 

An ongoing emergency

Doherty said the $882,000 now being considered will not be sufficient to ensure that all of the wells in the counties are tested and that every resident in need will have filters for safe drinking water this year. 

Doherty, the Morrow County Public Health Department and Oregon Rural Action, a nonprofit focused on social justice and the environment, have conducted the bulk of the water testing. He said the health authority should have been doing that and paying for it for years. OHA is not responsible by law for water safety in private wells, but it has been responsible for coming up with a plan to help with contaminated well water in Morrow and Umatilla Counties. In 2021, it submitted a plan to do so to the federal Environmental Protection Agency after several organizations petitioned the agency to do something about the area’s water pollution. EPA is still considering whether or not to intervene in the region.

OHA, along with the Environmental Quality Department and the Oregon Department of Agriculture, has known for at least 30 years that the area’s groundwater is contaminated by nitrates, a byproduct of fertilizers, animal manure and food-processing wastewater. Water with nitrates above 10 parts per million is unsafe to drink over long periods, according to the EPA, and is particularly harmful to infants and pregnant women. 

Out of frustration over inaction, Doherty started going door to door this spring, testing people’s tap water.

Since April, he, the county health department and Oregon Rural Action have tested water at 500 households, and 200 have come back with nitrate levels higher than the EPA’s safe drinking limit. An additional 48 have tested above the state’s preferred safe drinking level limit of 7 parts per million. 

Many of the wells provide water for low-income people and people of color. 

People with water testing high in nitrates require special reverse-osmosis filters that can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars each. In June, Morrow County declared a public health emergency over the nitrates, hoping it would usher in state funding. Instead, more than a month later, no outside money had come in. The state’s Emergency Management Office provided temporary water deliveries and two temporary staffers to help with distribution and outreach. 

Kristin Anderson Ostrom, executive director of  Oregon Rural Action, said people without safe drinking water are wondering when permanent solutions will come. 

“They’ve received emergency water since June,” she said. “People are asking us, ‘How long is this water going to last?’”

Between testing, outreach, water deliveries and filters, the county has spent nearly half-a-million dollars since April, Doherty said.

“This is money they’d have spent already if they had done what they were supposed to,” he said of health authority officials.

In Umatilla County, the health department has tested private wells of 61 households during the last two months, according to Joseph Fiumara, director of the department. Thirteen have tested high in nitrates, ranging from about 11 parts per million to nearly 40. Fiumara said the county is making a map with the data to identify pollution in certain areas. On Sept. 12, county officials will begin a door-to-door campaign with Oregon Rural Action to get water tested. “We intend to hold several of these events over the next year, and anticipate collecting 20 to 30 samples at each one,” Fiumara said.

State agencies have not funded this testing. 

Anderson Ostrom said she is unsure how much money is needed to ensure that all residents have safe drinking water. “Is this enough money? We don’t know,” she said of the $882,000. “We don’t know the extent of the number of (contaminated) wells, the number of people impacted, the extent of the harm. There’s no money in there for health assessments,” she said. 

What will get funded

The health authority said the $882,000 is supposed to last through June 30, 2023:

  • $75,000 to community groups and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation for outreach, education and technical assistance.
  • $200,000 in vouchers for people who want their water tested by certified labs.
  • $250,000 for reverse osmosis filters to be installed on home water taps, with priority on homes that have nitrate levels exceeding 20 parts per million.
  • $234,000 for Umatilla and Morrow counties to each hire an outreach and testing staffer.
  • $122,000 for OHA to hire a domestic well safety program coordinator. 

Doherty said it won’t be enough to test the thousands of wells across Morrow and Umatilla counties, and could leave many without safe drinking water until more money comes through.  “Morrow County will be lucky to see $200,000,” Doherty said of the money for testing and filters, noting that Umatilla County has a larger number of domestic wells.

He still hopes more aid will come. In late July, state Sen. Jeff Merkley asked the federal government for $1.7 million for Morrow County for  testing, research and data collection, but it could be months until the money is available. The money would also come with limitations. It cannot be used for filters because federal agencies are not allowed to use congressional money on supports for private wells. 

Doherty said he recently talked with Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, about getting more help to secure emergency funding. Owens suggested that they submit a request to the Emergency Board when it meets again, in December. 

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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.